March 7, 2004

Vivien Li: On the water front

First she cleaned Boston’s beaches. Then she tackled the harbor. But even those miracles don’t explain why Li may just be the most important person for this city’s future.

Vivien Li of The Boston Harbor Association stood outside the Moakley federal courthouse in 2004.
Vivien Li of The Boston Harbor Association stood outside the Moakley federal courthouse in 2004.Globe File

Editor’s note: The article is from the Globe archives. It originally ran in the Globe Magazine on Sunday, March 7, 2004.

Vivien Li is on the windy observation deck of the Independence Wharf building by the newly submerged Central Artery in Dewey Square. The towers of the financial district rise behind her, but they’re old Boston, and Li’s gaze is fixed, as usual, on the new Boston — the burgeoning South Boston waterfront, the nearly cleaned-up Fort Point Channel, the spanking new convention center, the reclaimed East Boston piers, the vast, sprawling airport, the distant islands. It’s like a spread from a developer’s four-color brochure, but it’s right there, all of it ringing the wide and sparkling Boston Harbor, where pleasure boats are turned at anchor into the wind, and gulls swoop in the sky. “See,” Li says. “It’s happening. It’s fabulous.”


It’s a stirring vista, no question, and one that Vivien Li, maybe more than anyone, has quietly given shape. Largely because of her organization, The Boston Harbor Association, the harbor waters are cleaner than the Charles River. Ninety percent of Greater Boston’s ocean beaches, she says, are swimmable for 90 percent of the summer. As the harbor association’s executive director, Li has turned what had been ù and could easily have remained ù a fairly useless nonprofit of goo-goos into a tenacious political force. Its mission was to make the harbor “clean, alive, and accessible,” adjectives that were not exactly the first three that came to mind to describe Boston Harbor when Li took over the association in 1991. But all three the harbor now is.

The flourishing and accessible parts are all Li, with her relentless pressure to promote every aspect of the harbor, rebuilding and beautifying beaches from Winthrop to Quincy, boosting the waterway as an active commercial port, celebrating the 34 islands, and building one of the nation’s longest seaside promenades, the 43-mile HarborWalk, two-thirds of which is completed. Yachtsmen, swimmers, tourists, sea kayakers, developers, sport fishermen, ocean gazers ù all are going down to the sea again.


Daunting as the group’s mission has been, Li has interpreted it rather broadly. This deck where she is standing, for instance, is one that she insisted upon as developer Les Marino’s penance for building higher than his permit allowed. She has been adamant that the Boston Harbor Hotel at Rowes Wharf, with its wonderful, enormous archway, maintain public access to the waterfront. She is pressing to turn the Fort Point Channel at her feet into a kind of watery Boston Common, with a public shoreline, barges for art displays, and docks for recreational boaters.

Development in the “hundred acres,” as the surrounding area is called, is likewise subject to her persistent advisories about height, mass, and wind impact. Li was one of the voices calling for the refurbishment of Spectacle Island, the longtime dump for the Big Dig; presto, it will open this summer with hiking trails, beaches, a visitor center. Eventually, there will be a marina. And, of course, there’s the water itself. “You didn’t smell anything walking over here along the waterfront, did you?” she asks playfully, knowing full well the answer. “No, of course not.”

All in all, hers has been an ambitious agenda, but actually her ultimate target is not the harbor but our ideas about it. Significant as her work for the harbor has been, she is engaged in an infinitely more consequential psychological transformation, of reorienting Bostonians to the sea. “That’s a tremendous psychic boon,” says urban historian Richard Rabinowitz, a consultant to the Central Artery/Tunnel Project. For years, he points out, Boston’s shoreline ran only along the Charles River in the minds of most citizens. “Just about everyone can map that side very accurately,” Rabinowitz says, “with all the bridges.” Not so on the harbor side. That became aqua incognita, a stinking, gloomy, abandoned waterfront, recently evoked in all its noirish, corpse-laden horror in the movie Mystic River. The wharves, incredibly, were good only for parking lots; the sea was the city’s sewer.


When Boston finally started to pull itself back from a half-century’s decline in the 1960s, it began its revival well inland with the Prudential Center, as if the sea itself were the problem. Only now, as urban renewal has crept shoreward, to the old West End, to Government Center, to Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and, finally, to the Central Artery, is the city opening itself up to the harbor once more. Obviously, the economic potential is enormous, as parking lots give way to office buildings, hotels, and restaurants.

But, as Rabinowitz points out, there is a psychic kick as well. The ocean view recalls Boston’s origins as the third biggest port in the British empire and, he adds, evokes Boston’s place as a global city. With its world-class universities, hospitals, and high-technology businesses, it is a city whose reach can extend to the horizon. By bringing the harbor back into view, Li has brought the implications of such a wide vista into public consciousness. Boston is no longer a city on a hill; it’s a city by the sea.


A small, quiet-spoken, and unfailingly polite woman of Chinese descent and the mother of two daughters, Li, who just turned 50, has been an unusually even-tempered force in an arena of civic life that has historically encouraged macho hotheads. “We don’t lie down in front of bulldozers,” she says. And this may be why you’ve most likely never heard of her. About the only Vivien Li story to make the rounds is when she dressed up as Margo Adams, the girlfriend of philandering former Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, for a Valentine’s Day get-together of her gourmet club more than a decade ago.

It’s hard to know if it’s because she’s female, Chinese, or simply Vivien, but she has done wonders for the local chi. She radiates calm. “I’ve seen her in the middle of the most heated, most emotionally charged argument, and Vivien says something, and it just stunned me, the calmness with which she spoke,” says Valerie Burns, the president of the Boston Natural Areas Network. “I have never, ever heard her raise her voice.” But that doesn’t mean Li isn’t heard. As Burns says: “People are always asking me, ‘Who was that woman?’ “ While Li has always been patient with the press, she’s shied away from media attention. With her latest interviewer, she spent an inordinate amount of time trying to persuade him she was a waste of ink.


Those who have worked with her find such modesty charming but misplaced. “She’s absolutely terrific,” says former governor Michael S. Dukakis, who hired her during his third administration for his senior staff to handle women’s issues and has kept an eye on her since. “She’s been wonderful on the harbor. My God, tenacious! She’s got great values and this quiet but very effective determination. There’s nothing soft about Vivien.”

Adds Paul Levy, the president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who worked with her on harbor issues in the early 1990s when he headed the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority: “I think of her as the best of the old-fashioned politicians. She’s just brilliant at building constituencies based on facts and principles and finding common interests. It’s beautiful to watch.”

The Boston Harbor Association is pretty much Vivien Li. While it has 1,000 members, its annual budget is just $300,000. She is one of only three full-time staff members, working out of a large loft space in one of the renovated warehouses on the urban-frontier end of Congress Street in South Boston. The association was started in 1973 by an unusual alliance of the League of Women Voters and the Boston Shipping Association. When Li joined the staff in 1991, she quickly bolstered the business side by adding Blair Brown, cofounder of Charrette, and investment adviser Tony Pell to her board. “It’s like the Sierra Club meets the chamber of commerce,” says Valerie Burns. “You wouldn’t think it would be a happy, productive marriage, but it is.”

Li is a huge believer in crossover, or, as she puts it, “the value of the least-likely ally.” She has worked so well with Republicans that she was one of only a handful of Democrats at former governor William F. Weld’s splashy party for his new wife (the bride in a mermaid dress, no less) at the New England Aquarium last October. “I saw Shannon O’Brien there,” Li says, “and we both just looked at each other.” And she was named to the transition teams of Republican Governors Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney as well. With Cellucci, Li was so sure there’d been some mistake, she called his office to tell them that maybe they didn’t know that, um, she used to work for Dukakis. She offered to withdraw quietly, to spare them any embarrassment. But they knew all about her politics and wanted her anyway.

As Li points out, clean water is a “motherhood” issue that no politician would ever oppose. But not all motherhood issues - affordable housing comes to mind - are political winners. In pressing for the restoration of all of Boston’s beaches fronting the Atlantic Ocean, Li made the most of her advantage - that politicians, like their constituents, likely had spent some of their happiest days at the beach.

Indeed, for Weld and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, that was about all they had in common. It didn’t particularly matter that for Weld, the beach was out by the Hamptons, and for Flynn, it was in Southie. A third influential politician, longtime state Senate president William M. Bulger, swam at South Boston’s Carson Beach as a child. In 1994, the three titans came together, with Li at the center, to deliver the key $30 million appropriation to restore Boston’s beaches.

Compelled by their common interest, Weld and Flynn had gathered a commission headed by Boston World Trade Center developer John Drew to study the beach issue, and in 1993 it had recommended that the state appropriate $27 million for the work. The commission had planned to form a group to push the matter, but Drew, a former Boston Harbor Association trustee, thought it would be smarter to just put the entire matter in Li’s hands. She jumped at the chance, taking full advantage of the $30,000 he offered to hire staff for the assignment.

Within a year, Li made her call to the Senate president at his ornate State House office. She presented Bulger with the commission’s appropriation recommendation ù with an addendum of her own. Why not round the $27 million up to an even $30 million, rather than run the risk that the Legislature would round it down to $25 million? Bulger thought that a splendid idea and promptly gaveled the money through. “In the dead of night,” Li says appreciatively. Since then, Bulger has even taken the time to hand out an annual William Bulger award for the person who is most helpful on harbor issues.

Li knows how to capture the public’s fancy, too. The 43-mile HarborWalk, for example, she calls the Sapphire Necklace, a play on the Emerald Necklace of the Olmsted parks and a bid to evoke some of the romance of the sea as well. It has already far exceeded anything in Baltimore, Chicago, or San Francisco, to name three cities that are Boston’s only major rivals for making the most of their waterfront.

Still, progress there has come practically foot by foot. Li personally cajoled then-appeals court judge Stephen Breyer into adding the darling waterfront park to his prized federal courthouse at Fan Pier. Li was outraged that the New England Aquarium was able to ride its legal status as a “water-dependent use” to build that big, boxy IMAX theater, blocking off a huge chunk of the harbor. “They’d never have been able to do that if they were General Cinema,” she says.

And even now, Li is going toe to toe with lawyers at Bingham McCutchen who represent a property owner at Lovejoy Wharf, near the FleetCenter. The owner is trying to renegotiate deadlines for constructing a public walkway at the waterfront. “We had an agreement,” Li says indignantly. “When we have a signed agreement, we don’t add to it later.”

Li has engaged in negotiations like this all over the waterfront, and it is a mark of her success that only one has ever blown up. That is the now-famous case of the FleetBoston Pavilion, when Li locked horns with Don Law, the rock promoter turned Clear Channel Communications music executive. Law had opened the pavilion on Fan Pier on property rented from the Pritzker family. When the Pritzkers elected not to renew Law’s lease, he sought out another South Boston waterfront spot that, because it was near a marine industrial site, was not zoned for entertainment. In 1999, Law negotiated a temporary, five-year waiver, established his pavilion, and then, in Li’s view, violated the agreement by failing to identify another location within the three-year period specified in their agreement. Instead, he secured special legislation allowing him to stay on, and, according to Li, he undertook a press vendetta against her. “I called him right up and I said, ‘Don, we had an agreement.’ ”

Law was unmoved. “That was most difficult,” Li says. “It was so visible. He had a media campaign targeting us! And we’d merely stuck to the letter of what we’d all agreed to.”

That’s Li’s way. Perhaps it is a feel for yin and yang, but she is always seeking that point of equipoise among various interests. And once it is found, she damn well expects it to stay there.

Hers is a kind of expanded ecological view, one that goes beyond biological influences to accommodate psychological, economic, cultural, aesthetic, and historical ones, too. But she started out very, very green. Her environmentalism began in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. As a junior at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, Li was the ringleader of a gang that called itself the Nocturnal Ecologists. After midnight, they’d converge on a litter-strewn lot (many of them driven there by their parents) and stay till dawn stuffing trash into garbage bags and then placing the bags in a neat row along the curb with a sign that read: “The Nocturnal Ecologists strike again!”

“We thought that was a fun thing to do,” Li says. She also was a vigilante on the subject of excessive packaging, actually ripping off the plastic and cardboard wrapping in grocery stores and handing it to the store manager with a request that he pass on her complaint about such wastefulness to the food’s manufacturer. She persuaded a local shopping district to declare a one-day automobile-free zone ù a “disaster,” she says, because virtually no shoppers came. But she and her high school friends did succeed in persuading the Ridgewood Village Council to create a $40,000 recycling center, one of the first in the nation.

The challenge for Li was not in taking on the establishment but in assuaging her parents. The Lis were one of the relatively few Asian-American families among the standard, pale-skinned Volvo drivers who largely populated her town. “I was aware I looked different,” she says. “Being Asian was like being African-American. I couldn’t disguise myself.” Li says she was called her share of names but that they didn’t bother her particularly.

Her father had emigrated in 1950 from Guangzhou to the supposed land of opportunity that the Chinese called “Gold Mountain.” Tsiang Li came for graduate school in chemistry at the University of Delaware but ended up working for his father, who’d come a few years before. In New York City, they produced what Vivien Li terms “quote-unquote Chinese food” ù 5-cent packages of chop suey that her grandfather sold to the working-class families at Rockaway Beach in Queens. Vivien’s mother, Dora Mei, came in 1952 from Hong Kong. Vivien can remember thuggish immigration officers coming around to check up on other Chinese. “Do you know where John Chin is?” she recalls their asking. “Is he legal?” “This was the McCarthy era,” she says. “They were always looking for ways to deport people.”

And so when Vivien started pushing back at the bureaucracy, her parents fretted. “They were afraid it was too public. They said to me, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be quoted that way in the newspapers.’ “ But they stuck by her and attended the council meeting at which their daughter argued for the recycling center. And when the councilors asked why they should listen to her, since she didn’t pay taxes, her parents stood up. “No, she doesn’t,” her father said, “but we do.”

Vivien Li went on to Barnard, majoring in environmental management. She’d received enough publicity for her activism in high school that the mayor of Newark, Ken Gibson, asked her to work part time on urban environmental issues like rodent control and lead poisoning. After a year’s fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a program on energy conservation, she brought one of her professors back with her to Newark to develop systems for conserving heat in municipal buildings.

In 1978, Li moved on to the National Urban League to work with Ron Brown and Vernon Jordan, future stars of the Clinton administration. “Both of them wore business suits, not dashikis,” she notes. “They went out of their way to be non-threatening.” Jordan particularly impressed her with his ability to switch from “ghetto talk” with the hipsters on the staff to corporate-speak with CEOs and board members. The Boston Redevelopment Authority brought her to the city in 1979 to tackle air-pollution issues. After she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton in 1983, a former Newark colleague, Bailus Walker, hired her to deal with environmental health issues in the state. At the time, Walker was Massachusetts’s public health commissioner. In 1988, Li joined Dukakis’s gubernatorial staff. After Dukakis’s defeat that year in a presidential campaign that hinged, in part, on the pollution of Boston Harbor, Li hung on for the remaining two years of his term, tearfully paring the budget for women’s issues that she’d worked so hard to expand. Then The Boston Harbor Association came calling.

While Li’s parents are both Protestant, thanks to the missionaries who came through China, Vivien herself is still a believer in some of the ancestral traditions. For the Chinese New Year, she distributes “lucky money,” usually a crisp dollar bill in a bright-red envelope, to colleagues and friends. One year, she was passing out envelopes on a visit to the office of developer Frank McCourt. McCourt wanted to know why she didn’t give him one. She tried to explain that it was just a dollar. “It’s not going to change your life, Frank,” she said, handing him one. Later, she received a note of gratitude for the luck. For the new year, she also sweeps out the dusty corners of the Back Bay condo she shares with her family to release any evil spirits and, following tradition, buys some new clothes, too.

She married Bob Holland in 1984 after meeting him on a harbor cruise. The fact that Holland is Irish-Catholic initially disturbed Li’s parents, but they’ve come around. The couple has two daughters at Noble and Greenough School, which Li and Holland both take to be an accomplishment for such a hyphenated family. There was a bad moment years ago when a Woolworth’s cashier demanded an ID from Li after claiming that she’d written her signature “in Chinese” on a credit card receipt. But Li is pretty much in with the Boston establishment, serving on the boards of overseers for the New England Conservatory of Music, Wellesley College’s Centers for Women, and the Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

It’s in this spirit of in-with-the-new that she sits on the advisory committee for the parcels of the emerging Rose Kennedy Greenway in the Wharf District. Each parcel marks not only the intersection of the north-south transportation route and the east-west link of shore to sea but also ù and typical for Li ù the convergence of a dizzying multitude of competing interests. It is telling that, 20 years into the project, plans for the Wharf District’s parcel 16, described in the Turnpike Authority’s latest report as the “heart of the park,” are still undecided beyond making it a so-called great room.

“A great room,” Li scoffs. “What’s that? Grass?” To Li, such emptiness is folly. She sees the need for programming if the city is expecting to fill the space with people. The Public Garden has its swan boats. Couldn’t the Greenway have something similar? A dramatically-lit fountain, say, like the one she’s seen at Barcelona that draws enormous crowds every night, or a carousel like the ones in Paris. But hers, she knows, is just one voice. It will take a little while longer to draw others into a chorus.

After 13 years on the job, Li has learned to be patient, to think in decades. She can recall when the Pritzkers were all set to build two hotels on the South Boston waterfront. Then the economy turned, the Pritzkers decided to sell out, and the lots are still vacant. So, as Li surveys the new Boston from the Independence Wharf observation deck, she takes the long view. “This isn’t for us,” she says. “It’s for our children.” And then, her hair tossing in the wintry breeze, she turn her eyes back to the sea.

John Sedgwick is the author of the novel The Education of Mrs. Bemis and is at work on a family memoir. He lives in Newton.